Some discussions of the very smart David Fincher/Gillian Flynn film Gone Girl have touched on the movie’s similarities to the work of Patricia Highsmith. With all due respect to admirers of Gone Girl, it takes a lot more than a psychotic wife framing her husband for murder and spitting in somebody’s Mountain Dew to be compared to the work of the author of Strangers on a Train and the Ripley novels. The danger of that sort of critical shooting from the hip came to mind while watching Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January, a genuine Highsmith adaptation but unfortunately not one of the very best.
It’s pretty to look at, at any rate. The predicament of three Americans tourists in Greece in 1962 — Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), and fake tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) — tickles us in all the right spots. Rydal is transparently sleazy, a broke hanger-on turned clumsy grifter, hustling squares at the Acropolis. Mr. and Mrs. MacFarland, posing in the ruins in their cream-colored tropical suits and holding out handfuls of drachmas to shopkeepers with dumb grins on their faces, appear to be sheep for the shearing. But they have hidden dimensions and Rydal is in for a surprise. In fact, several surprises, played out in an array of sun-splashed Mediterranean locations, lusciously shot by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind in Athens, Crete, and Istanbul.
Confidence tricksters never cease to fascinate. They’re the late Highsmith’s stock in trade. Lots of jockeying for position goes on between Rydal and Chester before the younger man with the sad letter from home in his pocket gives up and settles for the sidekick role. Rydal’s a junior-varsity version of Tom Ripley: glib, handsome, just enough Greek and Turkish language skills to put himself over, possessed of the easy charm of a cafe gigolo, but lacking the necessary polish and thus doomed to a life of collecting spare change. Chester, on the other hand, is a dull, well-fed businessman. Or so he wants you to think. Keep an eye on his hands, though, and get ready for a fight when he’s in the vicinity of whiskey.
Colette is not entirely in on the gag. She’s Chester’s pretty blond conscience. “It’s not like we’ve been straight with him,” she complains when her husband suggests, in effect, dropping Rydal off a pier with paving stones in his pants. Naturally she comes on to Rydal, naturally Rydal’s frightened at the thought of what Chester would do to him if he found out, and just as naturally Colette is the first one to freak out on a nutty bus ride that ends up in the basement of King Minos’ palace at Knossos, with Chester as the Minotaur. We can enjoy the deadly hanky-panky without knowing anything about the classical world, but it’s more fun when we play the game with some of the same awareness that Highsmith had.
In Highsmith’s high period, the general misanthropy of her narratives were undoubtedly shocking, but today that’s standard operating procedure for movie wrongdoers. Everyone wants to be a hustler now. Chester’s, and even Rydal’s, rackets are just about impossible to perpetrate nowadays because of technology. That’s one of the things we admire about Highsmith — her characters’ sins are refreshingly low-tech, stripped down to elemental human interaction, mano a mano, everyone for himself.
Director/adaptor Amini, who wrote Drive (and, ahem, Snow White and the Huntsman) understands where Highsmith is coming from, but that doesn’t make the movie’s ending any better. The final score: Weak denouement but satisfying buildup, with characterization and dialogue that reflects its era with panache, including careful role-playing by Mortensen, Isaac, and especially Dunst. Highsmith’s attitude is completely up-to-date 21st century, but her tales are doomed to be played as period pieces.